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Amongst the fastest growing in the world, the Middle Eastern hospitality industry is expected to grow at an annual rate of 9.5% to $35.9 billion by 2018, compared to $22.8 billion in 2013. Parallel to this surge is an increasing demand for talented individuals adequately equipped to deal with the ever-changing service model of today.

The World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that by 2025, the tourism and hospitality industry is forecast to swell 10%, adding nearly 72 million additional hospitality jobs worldwide. With events such as Dubai Expo 2020 and Qatar 2022 World Cup on the horizon, the region’s need for suitable employees is more pressing than ever. “Demand from the region is definitely on the rise, which is creating pressure on hotels to recruit fresh talent,” notes Clementine Rouan, Head of Industry Relations Global, Les Roches International School of Hotel Management.

With new hotels (featuring literally dozens of F&B outlets) popping up in the time it takes to cook an omelette, the regional demand for chefs has never been higher. But there’s a problem. “Given the current size of the hospitality industry in the Middle East, professional chef training is still very much in the nascent stages – a lot more actually needs to be done,” observes Sunjeh Raja, CEO of International Centre for Culinary Arts Dubai (ICCA).

The issue, he says, is one of standardisation: “the industry here is huge, but governments in this region have lacked the initiative to set benchmarking standards and develop professionalism to raise quality to match countries like Australia, the UK etc.” Zaigham Haque, CEO of School of Culinary and Finishing Arts (SCAFA) agrees: “There is a gap between the quality of Dubai’s top restaurants and the general quality of chef training in Dubai at entry level.” It’s a roadblock both men are seeking to remedy through their respective schools, which offer a full range of professional courses.

SCAFA, with premises in Pakistan and Dubai, prides itself on producing ‘thinking chefs’, able to not only execute challenging culinary techniques but also understand why they are doing so. Haque must be doing something right; two SCAFA graduates are cooking in NOMA, Copenhagen, 2014’s ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ according to the 50 Best Restaurants list.

Meanwhile in 2014 ICCA launched its One Million Dirham Continuing Education Award. In partnership with Emirates Culinary Guild, Worldchefs and City & Guilds, the programme offers 100% scholarship awards to 30 underprivileged chefs each year. The selected students undergo a 52 week course and graduate as fully qualified chefs from ICCA, an official global Top 10 Culinary Institute.

Both Raja and Haque agree on the pivotal role vocational training plays in a chef’s education: theory alone is poor preparation for the professional kitchen. But it can be a real challenge getting chefs working experience. “Internships are still grey have not come of age yet in the UAE – the percentage of internships is generally far less as compared to regular work placements,” Raja explains. He puts the shortage down to lack of clarity surrounding certain government policies, which makes the area “less comfortable to approach.”

But it’s something the authorities are aware of and striving to improve. “We face many challenges when it comes to the mindset of Emiratis when it comes to vocational education – there’s a stigma,” says Ayoub Kazim, Managing Director of TECOM’s education cluster. With only 3% of UAE students (not limited to F&B) undertaking vocational training, it’s easy to see why chef apprenticeships can be so hard to come by.

The solution? A more supportive F&B community. Successful establishments must open their doors to trainee chefs and give them a taste of the professional life, be it for three days or three months. “I think the best way to prepare a young chef for the industry is through work experience in restaurants and hotels – it teaches them what being under pressure is about,” agrees Rosaline Parsk. SCAFA and ICCA already have apprentice programmes with a number of the region’s leading establishments, including Sofitel, Atlantis the Palm and The Address hotels, but more chains need to step forwards and pledge their support. After all, if today’s practicing professionals don’t help tomorrow’s graduates who will staff the hundreds of new hotels?

Rosalind Parsk, Head Chef at Pierchic, Madinat Jumeirah, gives us her F&B forecast for the year ahead:

Do you see F&B thriving or struggling in the Middle East over the coming year?
2016 will be a difficult year; there are a lot of new restaurants opening but less people travelling to Dubai. It means the market will become very competitive.

What, in your opinion, will be the hottest F&B trend of 2016?
Casual dining. Dubai’s offering in this sector is becoming massive, what with areas such as ‘the beach.’

What are the underdeveloped areas of the market?
Chef tables are not as big here as they are in Europe.

Do you see more opportunities for local produce?

This market is growing fast, with a lot more farmers here in the UAE.

How much are customers changing in terms of their demands and knowledge
of food?

I think customers demand a lot out here in Dubai, especially if they feel they’re not getting value for money or what they feel they should have got.

How can suppliers improve their service and deliver more original, quality produce?
Import orders come twice a week, but there’s a fair bit of irregularity – it’s very difficult to rely on them.

What F&B staple should now be retired?
Big buffets.

What key plans do you have for developing your property/ies?
Keep our offerings fresh and new. Also, keeping to the seasons.

Is the era of all day dining coming to an end?
No, I think it will always be there. But maybe there will be a lull in big buffets and more a la carte menus instead.

Where do you stand on food trucks and ‘street food’?
Will we see more of them in 2016? Yes! I think this trend will be big in 2016.

How is training improving? What more can the region’s culinary schools do to prepare chefs for the professional demands of the industry?

Training is improving year on year here, with a lot of suppliers offering training. Many invite chefs and students to come to their warehouse to see all the fresh produce. I think the best way to prepare a young chef for the industry is through work experience in restaurants/hotels. This teaches them what being under pressure
is about.

How are we addressing the gender imbalance in the industry? How can we boost the number of female chefs here?
Being a woman myself, I can say there really is a big lack of females in the kitchen. But, saying that, we are a minority all over the world. It’s a hard industry and one that requires your job to be part of your life style – it’s not for everyone. It’s also hard coming into it when it is still very much such ‘a man’s world’, but if you have the passion for it then it’s a job for life.

The Middle East still does not go by the Michelin star rating system – is it time to introduce it here or not?
It would be amazing if they bought Michelin here to Dubai. It would recognise that restaurants here really do deserve it, plus it would give them something to work towards.

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